Popular notions, Bible clash over heaven
GRAPEVINE, Texas (BP)--Have you ever noticed that when a discussion turns to a recently deceased celebrity, someone invariably says, "I know he's looking down on us right now"? It doesn't matter how godless the person was, his peers refer to him as being in a better place and then gesture skyward.
Mark Coppenger, professor of Christian apologetics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, sees a lamentable example of that in the 1941 poem "High Flight," which was quoted in tribute to astronauts who died in the 1986 explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger.
Not all the astronauts were Christians "but we were told they 'slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God,'" Coppenger noted. He also recalled a cartoon in a Chicago newspaper that depicted the late sports announcer Harry Caray being welcomed by Saint Peter at the pearly gates, even though there was no evidence Caray was redeemed.
"Everywhere you turn, culture ignores the Bible to make gassy pronouncements on the afterlife," Coppenger said.
Such secular cultural perceptions are uninformed by the truth and seem to be based on the delusion that one's eternal destiny is determined either by heinous deeds or good poll numbers.
Some people assume the dearly departed are in heaven because they weren't notorious sinners. People want to believe the departed went to heaven because they know they themselves are sinners and want to believe they are not bad enough for hell. "I'm not as bad as the other guy," goes the thinking. "God will somehow understand in the end that we were pretty good people, and based on our overall behavior He should let us into heaven."
In a 2004 address at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, David Dockery, president of Union University in Jackson, Tenn., said, "Even those who retain some vague idea of heavenly bliss beyond this life are slow to acknowledge the reality of final judgment and condemnation. Modern men and women live with the mindset that there is no heaven, no hell and therefore no guilt."
FOCUSED ON THIS WORLD
Steve Lemke, provost of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, said so much error is found in popular thinking about eternity because there's "less preaching now about heaven and hell than in previous eras." He attributes that trend to the upward social mobility of Southern Baptists.
Until the 1950s, Southern Baptists were mostly rural, small-town folks and heaven was the only respite many poor people expected from their hardscrabble existence, Lemke noted. "So we lived with hope and our eyes on the skies, awaiting Christ's return," he said.
But with increased education and income, Southern Baptists moved to suburbia and began enjoying a fairly comfortable lifestyle with a focus on coping in this world, Lemke added.
"We don't give nearly the attention we should to eternity," he said. "Popular preaching focuses on how to have a better marriage, better relationships and how to cope with struggles.
"It is important that we address these topics in preaching and teaching, of course, but not to the neglect of a focus on eternity," he said. "By this very focus on meeting needs in this world -- to the neglect of preaching on heaven and hell -- we are showing by our actions that this world is more significant than the world to come."
Malcolm Yarnell, associate professor of systematic theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, sees two causes for the neglect of preaching on eternity, both of which "reflect the power of contemporary culture to distort the message once-for-all given to the saints."
"First, our people and pastors are increasingly interested in making heaven here on earth," Yarnell said. "The modern pursuit of material wealth and comfort, alongside the overarching desire to avoid pain or physical problems of any type, is a longstanding and pervasive influence in our culture. Rather than challenging such a mindset, some of us quietly cave into the demand for sermons to consider primarily mundane matters.
"Second, the subject of hell is not exactly the most comfortable subject to address," he said. "Postmodernism, with its attendant religious inclusivism and aversion to judgment, is the dominant outlook of our cultural elite, especially in the media; to condemn non-Christians to an eternity in hell is considered impolite, even rude."
"In the 1950s of my childhood, it was easier to preach on hell because there was more widespread conviction that the Bible was true," Coppenger added. "Or perhaps it worked the other way around: There was greater respect for the Bible because ministers preached the whole counsel of God, including the reality of hell, without embarrassment, mumbling, or marketing spin."
A NEED TO HEAR THE TRUTH
People think about the afterlife, but they need to hear the truth amid the eschatological blather espoused by the New Age movement, Mormonism, universalism, and other false religions, Coppenger added.
Yarnell agreed: "We don't clearly enough make the biblical connection between the doctrine of heaven and hell and the life we live today. The unfortunate consequence of this neglect is that we too easily live like permanent residents of the City of Man rather than the resident aliens we are, headed to our good end as Christ's people in the City of God."
Even people on opposite sides of the Calvinism issue seem to agree on certain matters of eternity, Yarnell added.
"Both traditional Baptists and Calvinist Baptists look at Scripture as inerrant and the supreme source of our doctrine," Yarnell said. "The New Testament is filled with references to heaven and hell. There is not a page of Scripture that, directly or indirectly, does not call the hearer to consider his eternal standing before an eternal God. If you derive your proclamation from Scripture, you will preach heaven and hell. On this, all conservative Southern Baptists will agree."
Muslims may talk more about eternal consequences than do evangelicals, says former missionary Eddie Pate, associate professor of missions at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary.
"Heaven and hell are issues I talked about all the time with Muslims," Pate said. "Many of my best conversations revolved around these topics. I would guess that, during our years on the mission field, heaven and hell were topics in at least half the conversations I had with Muslims.
"Muslims believe people who follow the pillars of Islam will go to heaven -- at least they hope so," Pate added. "But Muslims can't speak with any assurance like Christians can. They can't embrace 'Christ died once for our sins, once for all, the just for the unjust that he might bring us to God' (1 Peter 3:18). They have no such confidence."
Mormons, on the other hand, teach a universalistic view of an afterlife, explained Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Philip Roberts, who has written and lectured extensively on cults.
LDS founder Joseph Smith was traumatized by the accusation that his brother who died as a teenager had gone to hell and fashioned a religion in which "everyone is going to a better place," Roberts said. "Whether you are as evil as Adolf Hitler or whatever your lifestyle, you're at least going to go into a telestial kingdom, which Mormonism teaches is a far better place than this life and world, a place of great bliss and happiness."
Smith included all his elements of an afterlife -- becoming like gods and having many wives -- after becoming involved in polygamous affairs, Roberts noted. "His doctrine of the afterlife was created to satisfy his need to provide some kind of quasi-universalism and to cover his moral failures," he said.
THREE REASONS TO PREACH ON ETERNITY
Preaching on the doctrines of heaven and hell are vitally important because they "teach us not only of the life to come, but teach us much about how we should live in the everyday of life today," said David Nelson, theology professor and academic vice president at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.
"The doctrine of heaven and, yes, the doctrine of hell, lead us to reflect on the greatness and goodness of God who is holy and who is love, who is beautiful and glorious," Nelson said. "To fail to teach these doctrines is to fail to teach of the fullness of God by whom we are all to be filled, as Paul puts it in Ephesians 3."
"No preacher in his right mind enjoys preaching on hell," added David Allen, theology dean at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. "Hell is a place terrible beyond imagination. But no preacher in his right mind can avoid preaching on hell. As Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:11, 'knowing the terror of the Lord, we persuade men.'"
Allen said he preaches about hell for three reasons:
1) It is a biblical doctrine. Jesus spoke more about hell than about heaven. Jesus uses the word "Hades" four times in his preaching and the word "hell" 11 times. Eighteen of the 28 times Jesus uses the word "fire" in the Gospels, he is talking about hell. If there is no hell, then there is no punishment for sin.
2) We are commanded to preach the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). The Lord will hold his preachers accountable for preaching all of the Bible, not just the parts of it people like to hear.
3) Jesus lived, died and rose again so people would not have to go to hell. Only Jesus can save someone from his sins and from hell.
"Doctrinal preaching is drastically needed in our churches," Allen said. "Believe it or not, most people in the churches want to know what God said about heaven and hell. In fact, most lost people want to know as well. When I preach on hell, I have found most people give serious attention during the message.
"Remember, one should never preach on hell as if he were glad people were going there," he added. "If you don't preach with a tear in your eye, at least preach with a tear in your heart when you preach on hell. Speaking the truth in love in the power of the Holy Spirit is a powerful thing. Trust God to bless your preaching in this area and you will not be disappointed -- and neither will your people."
Eddie Pate remembers when he first listened to a cassette tape of Jerry Spencer, his uncle, preaching on hell.
"One summer, 30 years ago, as I painted a house, I listened to that same cassette tape over and over," Pate recalled. "The title of the sermon was 'If Hell Is Hell and We Don't Tell, What Kind of People Are We?'
"The title and the theme might sound 'old school' these days, but I hear that question go through my mind almost every day," Pate said. "As leaders and pastors we must regain the passion, emotion and depth of feeling that comes from understanding that our unsaved friends are indeed lost and bound for an eternity in hell outside of Christ. We must bear precious seed, weeping."
Norm Miller is a freelance writer based in Richmond, Va. This article originally appeared in the Southern Baptist Texan (www.texanonline.net), newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.